The mainframe still matters - and so does the skills crisis attached to it

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett July 19, 2017
As Baby Boomers continue to retire and Millennials focus on burnishing their digital expertise, an acute shortage of mainframe skills could make such know-how de rigueur again.

The shortage in mainframe skills has the potential to become as acute over the next five years as it currently is for expertise in areas such as information security and data science.

But the fact that mainframes still run the core business functions of 70% of the global Fortune 500 companies should give pause for thought. In fact, without these machines, critical national infrastructure organisations such as banks, airlines, utilities, healthcare bodies and even large retailers would be unable to function adequately as no equivalent system exists that can handle the high volume and speed of transactions required as reliably and securely as they can.

Therefore, it is perhaps unsurprising that a 2014 Vanson Bourne study showed that 87% of organisations currently using mainframes today expect to continue doing so for more than five years - and around a third intend to do so for the next 10 to 20. As Julie Baxter, vice president of support for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at mainframe software giant CA Technologies, explains:

It’s not a massive growth market, but it is stable-to-increasing. Those that have mainframes are maintaining them and aren’t pulling them out any more. So our renewal rate is solid and customers are staying loyal. With new application ecosystems and being able to add digital front doors to these systems, data is much more accessible than it was 10-15 years ago, which is breathing new life into them.

Although demand for mainframe expertise has been in gradual decline over the last 10 years, Martin Ewings, director of regional sales and specialist markets at recruitment consultancy Experis, indicates that this trend is now starting to reverse somewhat. The issue is that the “amount of new talent available has almost ground to a halt”, while members of the key Baby Boomer age group with longstanding mainframe expertise is starting to retire in droves.

Although Ewings detected a “slight softening of pressure” as a result of the 2008 recession, which saw some Baby Boomers keep on working for financial reasons, a big challenge now relates to renewal and replacement. For example, most universities do not include a mainframe element in their computer science degree curriculums these days, which means that training in the field is often simply not on the agenda.

Skills crunch

While the issue has so far been partially offset by increased automation, the upshot is that skills shortages are already starting to emerge across the board. Ewings points out:

Organisations aren’t necessarily struggling, but we are seeing an urgency of demand from some to do things like updating software, especially in relation to security, data recovery and data storage. But there’s also demand across all mainframe skillsets and we’re already seeing day rates for contractors increase. That will only continue as more people retire because there simply aren’t enough new individuals coming onto the market.

To make matters worse, mainframe manufacturer IBM predicts that as many as 37,200 new admin positions could be created worldwide by 2020, which, if true, will only add to the impending skills crunch.

The problem itself though appears to have begun about 10-15 years ago when many companies stopped investing in mainframe skills because they expected to migrate off the platform in the not too distant future.

Baxter says that, while big vendors such as CA and IBM are not yet struggling from a talent point of view as they have been investing in this area for some time, pain is already being felt among smaller teams working in mainframe user companies as they are having to “scrap on the open market for skills or try to poach people”. Nonetheless, she believes a skills crisis across the wider market is imminent:

As people retire, it’s about losing their longevity and strength of experience. The mainframe wasn’t sexy 10 years ago so there was no interest or investment in the talent pool, but that’s changing now. So it’s about that middle section of talent. There’ll be a slump in the next five to 10 years and that’s when it’ll be painful. Hiring will get really tough and more customers will look at mainframe-based cloud solutions as it’ll get too expensive to maintain the skills base. That means it’ll be the big vendors and grid service providers who’ll be vying for expertise then.

In fact, Baxter goes so far as to say she believes that over the next five years, mainframes will become as “hot” a skills area as information security and data science as “with today’s app economy, it’s genuinely coming back into its own”.

Therefore, to try and address this pending shortfall, IBM has so far invested more than $10 million in its Academic Initiative, a programme that has resulted in more than 1,000 universities and colleges in 67 countries providing a mainframe education to over 68,000 students. One of the latest participants in the scheme is the UK’s Manchester Metropolitan University, which will offer a new four-year mainframe apprenticeship degree course for up to 25 students from September this year. The course will be practical in bent and include two work-based projects in the third and final year.

Planning for the future

CA, meanwhile, has created mainframe hubs close to two universities that focus on the technology, one in Prague in the Czech Republic and the other in Plano, Texas, in the US. The vendor also sponsors degrees, runs grade programmes and offers internships. Baxter says:

Once you explain to a Millennial that their phone connects to a mainframe when they do their online shopping or banking so it powers most of what they do, and you talk about the skills crisis and the growing demand for talent, they generally start to pay attention.

Companies such as IT infrastructure services provider Ensono, on the other hand, are also trying the home-grown approach. The organisation has set up a graduate recruitment programme of its own and, after hiring, it pairs each new staff member with a mentor, the aim being to facilitate both technical skills transferral and the adoption of wider life, and work, lessons. Ken Harper, director of mainframe services, says:

We tried pulling people out of retirement and getting them to work as consultants but many of them find that coming back to work can be a struggle. It’s also means you can’t build for the future. But we’ve found good success in recruiting Millennials to address the skills gap.

Before starting anything though, Harper first recommends writing a plan for the future. He explains the rationale:

It’s a basic thing, but taking the time and effort to build a plan is important, whether it’s a succession plan that includes recruiting, hiring and training or a sun-setting plan for various workloads. It helps you clarify your strategy and where you need to go.

But Experis’ Ewings is not convinced that Millennials are actually the answer at all. Instead he advises employers to be more “creative and innovative” when looking for new talent:

My advice is don’t go to a university milkround or equivalent to attract Millennials – try to create a more diverse workforce. If you have mainframe people who want to retire, why not retain them by asking if they’d like to be contracted as interims and use their knowledge to up-skill people from a broader talent pool such as army veterans? People with that background are ideal for cross-training purposes as they’re keen to have an impact on the organisation’s strategy but are also looking for stability so you’re less likely to lose them to companies like Facebook.

My take

After years of talk about the death of the mainframe and dwindling investment in skills, it seems that demand for such expertise may now be on the cusp of making a big come back. Ironically, if we don’t see significant change over the next five years or so, the mainframe could even become a hot new/old area for ambitious souls to make a killing. Which just goes to show how circular the tech industry and its trends actually are.

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